Scandal, heartbreak, and gunslinging mayors: New popular non-fiction

It’s a new month and as per usual we have a plethora of shiny new non-fiction books awaiting their readers. For those interested in all things local, you might be intrigued by Downfall, a dramatic tale about Whanganui mayor Charles Mackay, who was mired in scandal after shooting the blackmailing poet D’Arcy Cresswell. We also have A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects which – much like it says on the tin – uses a range of historical relics as a base to examine fascinating, important and odd moments in our history, perfect for those who prefer to dip in and out of a book.

Looking further abroad, Sally Hayden’s depiction of the North African refugee and migrant crisis in My Fourth Time, We Drowned is a stellar piece of journalism, exploring the terrible impact of international politics on individual lives. Mike Rinder’s story of how he rose through the ranks of the Scientology church, and how he subsequently escaped, is another chilling read which reveals the inner workings of this powerful and controversial organisation. Then for fans of Dolly Alderton (or for anyone who’s feeling particularly nosy, or who happens to be craving a bit of good-humoured advice) we have Dear Dolly, a curation of letters from her agony aunt column.

Downfall : the destruction of Charles Mackay / Diamond, Paul
“In 1920 New Zealanders were shocked by the news that the brilliant, well-connected mayor of Whanganui had shot a young gay poet, D’Arcy Cresswell, who was blackmailing him. They were then riveted by the trial that followed. Mackay was sentenced to hard labour and later left the country, only to be shot by a police sniper during street unrest in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. Mackay had married into Whanganui high society, and the story has long been the town’s dark secret. The outcome of years of digging by historian Paul Diamond, Downfall shines a clear light on the vengeful impulses behind the blackmail and Mackay’s ruination.” (Catalogue)

My fourth time, we drowned : seeking refuge on the world’s deadliest migration route / Hayden, Sally
“Reporter Sally Hayden was at home in London when she received a message on Facebook: “Hi sister Sally, we need your help.” The sender identified himself as an Eritrean refugee who had been held in a Libyan detention centre for months. From this single message begins a staggering account of the migrant crisis across North Africa. Hayden’s book is based on interviews with hundreds of refugees and migrants who tried to reach Europe and found themselves stuck in Libya once the EU started funding interceptions in 2017. It is an intimate portrait of life for these detainees, as well as a condemnation of NGOs and the United Nations, whose abdication of international standards will echo throughout history. But most importantly, My Fourth Time, We Drowned shines a light on the resilience of humans: how refugees and migrants survive in a system that wants them to be silent and disappear.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Dear Dolly : on love, life and friendship : collected wisdom from her Sunday Times Style column / Alderton, Dolly
“Since early 2020, Dolly Alderton has been sharing her wisdom, warmth and wit with the countless people who have written in to her Dear Dolly agony aunt column. Their questions range from the painfully – and sometimes hilariously – relatable to the occasionally bizarre. Without judgement, and with deep empathy informed by her own, much-chronicled adventures in love, friendship and dating, Dolly leads us by the hand through the various labyrinths of life, proving that a problem shared is truly a problem halved.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

A history of New Zealand in 100 objects / Phillips, Jock
“The sewing kete of an unknown 18th-century Māori woman; the Endeavour cannons that fired on waka in 1769; the bagpipes of an Irish publican Paddy Galvin; the school uniform of Harold Pond, a Napier Tech pupil in the Hawke’s Bay quake; the Biko shields that tried to protect protestors during the Springbok tour in 1981; Winston Reynolds’ remarkable home-made Hokitika television set, the oldest working TV in the country; the soccer ball that was a tribute to Tariq Omar, a victim of the Christchurch Mosque shootings, and so many more – these are items of quiet significance and great personal meaning, taonga carrying stories that together represent a dramatic, full-of-life history for everyday New Zealanders.” (Catalogue)

A billion years : my escape from a life in the highest ranks of Scientology / Rinder, Mike
“Mike Rinder’s parents began taking him to their local Scientology center when he was five years old. In the 1980s, Rinder became Scientology’s international spokesperson and the head of its powerful Office of Special Affairs. He helped negotiate Scientology’s pivotal tax exemption from the IRS and engaged with the organization’s prominent celebrity members. Yet Rinder couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that something was amiss. In 2007, at the age of fifty-two, Rinder finally escaped Scientology. Overnight, he became one of the organization’s biggest public enemies. In A Billion Years, the dark, dystopian truth about Scientology is revealed as never before. Rinder offers insights into the religion that only someone of his former high rank could provide and tells a harrowing but fulfilling story of personal resilience.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Dinner in Rome : a history of the world in one meal / Viestad, Andreas
““There is more history in a bowl of pasta than in the Colosseum,” writes Andreas Viestad. From the table of a classic Roman restaurant, Viestad takes us on a fascinating culinary exploration of the Eternal City and global civilization. He finds deeper meanings in his meal: he uses the bread that begins his dinner to trace the origins of wheat and its role in Rome’s rise as well as its downfall. With his fried artichoke antipasto, he explains olive oil’s part in the religious conflict of sixteenth-century Europe. And, from his sorbet dessert, he recounts how lemons featured in the history of the Mafia in the nineteenth century and how the hunger for sugar fuelled the slave trade. Viestad’s “culinary archaeology” is an entertaining, flavourful journey across the dinner table and time.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The modern bestiary : a curated collection of wondrous creatures / Bagniewska, Joanna
“From the familiar to the improbable, the gross to the endearing, The Modern Bestiary is a compendium of curious creatures. Arranged by elements (Earth, Water, Air), it contains well-known species told from new, unexpected angles, as well as stranger and lesser-known creatures. Then there are the ‘aliens on Earth’, such as tardigrades, tongue-eating lice and immortal jellyfish, creatures so astonishing that they make unicorns look rather commonplace. Written by a zoologist with a flair for storytelling, this is a fascinating celebration of the animal kingdom.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Local standouts: New non-fiction

The warm days of raumati are here! There’s a wonderful selection of local non-fiction this month, perfect for those of you looking to deepen your knowledge of Aotearoa over the summer. First, we have the luminous Wawata by Hinemoa Elder, author of Aroha. Mātauranga Māori is at the core of Elder’s writing, and here she explores the maramataka, guiding us through the phases of the moon and showing us how we might live by its ever-shifting face. Our copies are in high demand, but it’s worth the wait.

Another local book is Cult Trip by journalist Anke Richter, where you can read about New Zealand’s most notorious groups and communities, while Dylan Reeve’s Fake Believe looks at the conspiracy theories running rife in this country. If while sunbathing at the seaside you fancy learning more about the life in the moana, look no further than Secrets of the Sea (a follow up to bestseller The Meaning of Trees). This beautifully illustrated book focuses on Aotearoa’s marine creatures, and traces the impact they have had on our history and culture. 

There’s plenty more of interest below for those of you sorting out your summer reading pile (ours is always optimistically hefty) so take a look and get reserving. We’ll be back with more non-fiction picks in the new year, but until then – happy reading!

How to speak whale : a voyage into the future of animal communication / Mustill, Tom
“In 2015, wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill was whale-watching when a humpback breached onto his kayak and nearly killed him. He became obsessed with trying to find out what the whale had been thinking and sometimes wished he could just ask it. In the process of making a film about his experience, he discovered that might not be such a crazy idea. This is a story about the pioneers in a new age of discovery, whose cutting-edge developments in natural science and technology are taking us to the brink of decoding animal communication – and whales, with their giant mammalian brains and sophisticated vocalisations, offer one of the most realistic opportunities for us to do so. Enormously original and hugely entertaining, How to Speak Whale is an unforgettable look at how close we truly are to communicating with another species – and how doing so might change our world beyond recognition.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Cult trip / Richter, Anke
“Anke Richter is one of the world’s leading journalists on cults. She has researched the aftermath of Centrepoint and exposed other groups like Agama Yoga and Gloriavale. This book can be compared to Stasiland in style: a deep dive into New Zealand’s most notorious present and former high-control groups, told in a personal journalism style. Richter will describe her challenges of working in the field of cult reporting, of coming under attack by perpetrators and sometimes getting too close to victims and their trauma – and the lessons she learned. The book will explain the dynamics that can turn any yoga group or scheme into a cult, and why we are all susceptible to undue influence.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The Earth : a biography of life : the story of life on our planet through 47 incredible organisms / Panciroli, Elsa
“It is difficult to conceive of the vast scale of the history of life on Earth, from the very first living organisms sparking into life in hydrothermal deep-sea vents to the dizzying diversity of life today. The evolution of life is a sweeping epic of a tale, with twists and turns, surprising heroes and unlikely survivors. The Earth beautifully distils this complex story into a meaningful scale. Prepare to be confounded by the ingenuity of evolutionary biologies, humbled by our own brief part in this epic history, and disquieted by our disproportionate impact on the world we call home.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Wawata : moon dreaming : daily wisdom guided by Hina, the Māori moon / Elder, Hinemoa
“Hina, the Māori moon goddess, has 30 different faces to help illuminate life’s lessons – a different face and a different energy for each day of the month – and with her changing light, new insights are revealed. This book gives us the chance to connect to the ancient wisdom of the old people, who reach forward into our lives, with each of the moon’s names as their offerings. Their reminders are a source of strength in our strange modern world, where we have been stripped of much of the connection and relationships we need for our wellbeing. This book leads you through a full cycle of the moon, to consider 30 aspects of life. And lessons we thought we had learned come back around with each month’s cycle and remind us of deeper layers and blind spots.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Survival of the richest : escape fantasies of the tech billionaires / Rushkoff, Douglas
“Five mysterious billionaires summoned Douglas Rushkoff to a desert resort for a private talk. The topic? How to survive The Event: the societal catastrophe they know is coming. Rushkoff came to understand that these men were under the influence of The Mindset, a Silicon Valley-style certainty that they can break the laws of physics, economics, and morality to escape a disaster of their own making – as long as they have enough money and the right technology. This mind-blowing work of social analysis shows us how to transcend the landscape The Mindset created – a world rewarding our most selfish tendencies – and rediscover community, mutual aid, and human interdependency.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Secrets of the sea / Vennell, Robert
Secrets of the Sea is a fascinating introduction to New Zealand’s fish and shellfish, weaving together history, biology and culture to reveal how these unique and intriguing creatures have shaped our lives. Ranging from sandy shores and rocky reefs to the open ocean and its cavernous depths, Robert Vennell celebrates the magic and mystery of the world beneath the waves. Lavishly illustrated with stunning photographs and fascinating historical illustrations.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The life of crime : detecting the history of mysteries and their creators / Edwards, Martin
The Life of Crime is the result of a lifetime of reading and enjoying all types of crime fiction, old and new, from around the world. In what will surely be regarded as his magnum opus, Martin Edwards has thrown himself undaunted into the breadth and complexity of the genre to write an authoritative – and readable – study of its development and evolution. With crime fiction being read more widely than ever around the world, and with individual authors increasingly the subject of extensive academic study, his expert distillation of more than two centuries of extraordinary books and authors into one coherent history makes for compelling reading.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Fake believe : conspiracy theories in Aotearoa / Reeve, Dylan
“Conspiracy theories: What do people believe, and why? How have they come to this place, and what does it mean for us all? By speaking to experts and those with personal experience of conspiracy culture, Dylan Reeve conveys what it means to believe and their relation to modern Aotearoa. Fake Believe should leave you feeling informed about our current time, and some of what’s come before. It should offer an understanding of what others believe, and it should deliver a fairly consistent series of ‘WTF’ moments.” (Catalogue)

The first autobiographer (and other women you’ve never heard of): New non-fiction

Margery Kempe was a Christian mystic who lived from 1373-1438. During her life she had at least fourteen children, undertook pilgrimages across Europe and the Middle East, experienced extensive visions, and was tried multiple times for heresy (although she was never convicted). She also authored what is most likely the first ever autobiography written in English.

The Book of Margery Kempe is a unique glimpse into a woman’s life during the medieval period. We have a copy you can reserve here, if you’d like to check it out. It’s due to a whole lot of luck that we can even read it at all, as it was lost for centuries after the Reformation, until it was eventually found in 1934 in a cupboard on a countryside estate (during a search for some ping-pong balls no less). The man who found it joked about burning the old tome in order to clear some space, but thankfully this didn’t end up happening: the book’s worth was recognised and it went on to be published. 

You can find stories like this and more in Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages Through the Women Written Out of It. It’s no chance, Janina Ramirez argues, that knowledge about women like Margery Kempe is so rare – rather, there has been a concerted effort to erase the many strange, wonderful women in Western history, whether that’s through active removal from the historical record or simply through lack of care. But traces have survived, even if scholars have to scour the cracks for them. In Femina, Ramirez challenges our preconceptions of what life was like for women in the past, and shows us just how complex and fascinating our world can be when such histories are celebrated, not smothered.

There’s more of this questioning spirit to be found in the rest of this month’s picks, which cover a range of different topics from jazz and the mafia to the little games on your phone. You can read more about them all below! 

Femina : a new history of the middle ages through the women written out of it / Ramirez, Janina 
“The middle ages are seen as a bloodthirsty time of Vikings, saints and kings: a patriarchal society which oppressed and excluded women. Historian Janina Ramirez has uncovered countless influential women’s names struck out of historical records, with the word FEMINA annotated beside them. Only now, through a careful examination of the artefacts, writings and possessions they left behind, are the influential and multifaceted lives of women emerging.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Dangerous rhythms : jazz and the underworld / English, T. J.
Dangerous Rhythms tells the symbiotic story of jazz and the underworld. For the first half of the century mobsters and musicians enjoyed a mutually beneficial partnership. By offering artists a stage, the mob provided opportunities that would not otherwise have existed. Even so, at the heart of this relationship was a festering racial inequity. The musicians were mostly African American, and the clubs and means of production were owned by white men. It was a glorified plantation system that, over time, would find itself out of tune with an emerging Civil Rights movement.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Freedom to think : the long struggle to liberate our minds / Alegre, Susie
“Without a moment’s pause, we share our most intimate thoughts with trillion-dollar tech companies. Their algorithms categorize us and jump to conclusions about who we are, and even shape our everyday thoughts and actions. Part history and part manifesto, Freedom to Think charts the history and importance of our most basic human right: freedom of thought. Providing a bold new framework to understand how our agency is being gradually undermined, Freedom to Think is a groundbreaking and vital charter for taking back our humanity and safeguarding our reason.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Volt rush : the winners and losers in the race to go green / Sanderson, Henry
“We depend on a handful of metals and rare earths to power our phones and computers. Increasingly, we rely on them to power our cars and our homes. Whoever controls these finite commodities will become rich beyond imagining. Sanderson journeys to meet the characters, companies, and nations scrambling for the new resources, linking remote mines in the Congo and Chile’s Atacama Desert to giant Chinese battery factories, shadowy commodity traders, secretive billionaires, and a new generation of scientists attempting to solve the dilemma of a ‘greener’ world.” (Adapted from catalogue)

Into the forest : the secret language of trees / Hitchcock, Susan Tyler
“For millennia, trees have offered renewal and inspiration. They have provided for humanity on every level, from spiritual sanctuary to the raw material for our homes, books, and food. Here, National Geographic combines legendary photography with cutting-edge science to illuminate exactly how trees influence the life of planet Earth. Beautifully illustrated essays tell the stories of the world’s most remarkable trees, from Tāne Mahuta in New Zealand to Pando, a single aspen spreading over 100 acres: Earth’s largest living thing.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Adopted : loss, love, family and reunion / Willis, Jo
“To not know your family story is a huge loss of your sense of self. It has the potential to undermine your wellbeing and your relationships across a lifetime. Adopted is the powerful and honest account of two of the thousands of children affected by closed adoption in Aotearoa New Zealand, from 1950 to the mid 1970s. Jo Willis and Brigitta Baker both sought and found their respective birthparents at different stages of their lives and have become advocates for other adopted New Zealanders. In this compelling book, they share the complexity of that journey, the emotional challenges they faced, and the ongoing impacts of their adoptions, with candour and courage.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

You’ve been played : how corporations, governments, and schools use games to control us all / Hon, Adrian
“A call-center worker patiently troubleshoots a customer’s broken printer, while a cartoon character in a corner of his screen chides him for sounding too unengaged. An exhausted Uber driver needs extra cash, so she accepts a pop-up Quest on her app: drive another three trips to get a $6 bonus. These are games that we often have no choice but to play, where failure isn’t met with a cheery “try again” but with very real financial and social penalties. You’ve Been Played is a scathing indictment of a tech-driven world that wants us to think misery is fun, and a call to arms for anyone who hopes to preserve their dignity and autonomy, at our jobs and in our lives.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

American cartel : inside the battle to bring down the opioid industry / Higham, Scott
American Cartel is an unflinching and deeply documented dive into the culpability of the drug companies behind the staggering death toll of the opioid epidemic. Its narrative approach moves dramatically between corporate boardrooms, courthouses, lobbying firms, DEA field offices and Capitol Hill while capturing the human toll of the epidemic on America’s streets. American Cartel is the story of those who were on the front lines of the fight to stop the human carnage.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

All the knowledge in the world : the extraordinary story of the encyclopaedia / Garfield, Simon
“The encyclopaedia once shaped our understanding of the world. Created by thousands of scholars and the most obsessive of editors, a good set conveyed a sense of absolute wisdom on its reader. But now these huge books gather dust, and sell for almost nothing on eBay, and we derive our information from our phones and computers, apparently for free. What have we lost in this transition? And how did we tell the progress of our lives in the past? All the Knowledge in the World is a history and celebration of those who created the most ground-breaking and remarkable publishing phenomenon of any age.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Distant shores: New non-fiction

Many of the books below involve ideas of heritage: what we inherit from our families, from the cultures we grow up within, and from the complex histories of our world as a whole. In Motherlands, Amaryllis Gacioppo goes searching for a homeland she only knows through stories, while in Hidden Heritage Fatima Manji uses six forgotten relics as a guide to a lesser-told history of the British Empire. Looking into the future, beach-comber Tracey Williams considers the inheritance we are leaving for our descendants in Adrift, as she finds pieces of sea-themed Lego amongst other modern detritus – a ship full of the plastic toys sunk in the 1990s and pieces are still washing up to this day. 

If those don’t sound like your cup of tea, why not check out Don’t Let It Get You Down or All the Women in My Brain, two excellent collections of essays focusing in on identity. Or perhaps you’d like to take a literary tour without having to leave your chair? In that case, Around the World in 80 Books is the one for you.

Motherlands / Gacioppo, Amaryllis
“Australian writer Amaryllis Gacioppo has been raised on stories of original homes, on the Palermo of her mother, the Benghazi of her grandmother and the Turin of her great-grandmother. But what does belonging mean when you’re not sure of where home is? Is the modern nation state defined by those who flourish there or by those who aren’t welcome? Is visiting the land of one’s ancestors a return, a chance to feel complete, or a fantasy? Weaving memoir and cultural history through modern political history, examining notions of citizenship, statelessness, memory and identity and the very notion of home, Motherlands heralds the arrival of a major talent that opens one’s eyes to new ways of seeing.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Adrift : the curious tale of the Lego lost at sea / Williams, Tracey
“In 1997 sixty-two containers fell off the cargo ship Tokio Express after it was hit by a rogue wave off the coast of Cornwall, including one container filled with nearly five million pieces of Lego, much of it sea themed. The pieces are still washing up today. Writer and beachcomber Tracey Williams has always been intrigued by chance finds and the stories and folklore behind them, from shells and sea glass discovered on childhood holidays in Cornwall to flints and fossils unearthed in fields. In 1997, she became interested in the changing nature of beach combing and began to research the age and origin of many of the man-made items she discovered. Her plastic finds have since been described as “a colourful catalogue of our times.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Don’t let it get you down : essays on race, gender, and the body / Nolan, Savala
“An incisive and vulnerable yet powerful and provocative collection of essays, Savala offers poignant reflections on living between society’s most charged, politicized, and intractably polar spaces: between black and white, between rich and poor, between thin and fat – as a woman. It is these liminal spaces that give the essays their strikingly clear and refreshing point of view on the defining tension points in our culture. Each of the twelve essays are rife with unforgettable and insightful anecdotes, and are as humorous and as full of Savala’s appetites as they are of anxieties. Perfect for fans of Heavy by Kiese Laymon and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, this book delivers a fresh perspective on race, class, bodies, and gender, that is both an entertaining and engaging addition to the ongoing social and cultural conversation.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Hidden heritage : rediscovering Britain’s lost love for the Orient / Manji, Fatima
“Why was there a Turkish mosque adorning Britain’s most famous botanic garden in in the eighteenth century? And more importantly, why is it no longer there? Throughout Britain’s galleries and museums, civic buildings and stately homes, relics can be found that beg these questions and more. They point to a more complex national history than is commonly remembered. These objects, lost, concealed or simply overlooked, expose the diversity of pre-twentieth-century Britain and the misconceptions around modern immigration narratives. In her journey across the country exploring cultural landmarks, Fatima Manji searches for a richer and more honest story of a nation struggling with identity and the legacy of empire.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Around the world in 80 books / Damrosch, David
“David Damrosch set out to counter a pandemic’s restrictions on travel by exploring eighty exceptional books from around the globe. Following a literary itinerary from London to Venice, Tehran and points beyond, he explores how these works have shaped our idea of the world, and the ways in which the world bleeds into literature. In his literary cartography, Damrosch includes compelling contemporary works as well as perennial classics, hard-bitten crime fiction as well as haunting works of fantasy, and the formative tales that introduce us as children to the world we’re entering. Taken together, these eighty titles offer us fresh perspective on enduring problems. Around the World in 80 Books is a global invitation to look beyond ourselves and our surroundings, and to see our world and its literature in new ways.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

All the women in my brain : and other concerns / Gilpin, Betty
“Betty Gilpin has a brain full of women. There’s Blanche VonFuckery, Ingrid St. Rash, and a host of others–some cowering in sweatpants, some howling plans for revolution, and some, oh God, and some…slowly vomiting up a crow without breaking eye contact? Jesus. These women take turns at the wheel. That’s why Betty feels like a million selves. With a raised eyebrow and a soul-scalpel, she tells us how she got this way. She takes us from wild dissections of modern womanhood to boarding school to the glossy cringe of Hollywood. We laugh through the failures and quietly hope with her for the dreams. Stunning, candid, and laugh-out-loud funny, All the Women in My Brain is perfect for any reader who’s ever felt like they were more, or at least weirder, than the world expected.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Beyond measure : the hidden history of measurement / Vincent, James
“We measure rainfall and radiation, the depths of space and the emptiness of atoms, calories and steps, happiness and pain. But how did measurement become ubiquitous in modern life? When did humanity first take up scales and rulers, and why does this practice hold authority over so many aspects of our lives? Written with dazzling intelligence, James Vincent provides a fresh and original perspective on human history as he tracks our long search for dependable truths in a chaotic universe. Full of mavericks and visionaries, adventure and the unexpected, Beyond Measure shows that measurement has not only made the world we live in, it has made us too.” (Adapted from Amazon UK)

Pirate queens : the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read / Simon, Rebecca
“Between August and October 1720, two female pirates named Anne Bonny and Mary Read terrorized the Caribbean in and around Jamaica. Despite their short career, they became two of the most notorious pirates during the height of the eighteenth-century Golden Age of Piracy. In a world dominated by men, they became infamous for their bravery, cruelty and unwavering determination to escape the social constraints placed on women during that time. But how much is fact versus fiction? This first full-length biography about Anne Bonny and Mary Read explores their intriguing backgrounds while examining the social context of women in their lifetime and their legacy in popular culture that exists to the present day.” (Adapted from Amazon UK)

Into the unknown: New popular non-fiction

We have some top-notch journalism in this month’s picks. Matthieu Aikins writes about the refugee experience as he accompanies his friend Omar from Afghanistan to Europe. Hayley Campbell investigates the lives of those who work in and amongst the dead, while George Monbiot tackles the plight of our agricultural systems and explores how farming might be done otherwise. These are all well-researched, impactful books with deep connections to the subjects and communities they depict, while still being accessible entry-points for those new to the topic. As to the other highlights, down below you’ll find both true crime and tree crime, some nineties nostalgia, an exploration of non-human intelligence and an ode to the beloved objects in our lives.

The naked don’t fear the water / Aikins, Matthieu
“In 2016, a young Afghan driver and translator named Omar makes the choice to flee his war-torn country, saying goodbye to Laila, the love of his life, without knowing when they might be reunited again. He is one of millions of refugees who leave their homes that year. Matthieu Aikins, a journalist living in Kabul, decides to follow his friend. Their odyssey across land and sea from Afghanistan to Europe brings them face to face with the people at heart of the migration crisis. As setbacks and dangers mount for the two friends, Matthieu is also drawn into the escape plans of Omar’s entire family, including Maryam, the matriarch who has fought ferociously for her children’s survival.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Regenesis : feeding the world without devouring the planet / Monbiot, George
“People talk a lot about the problems with intensive farming. But the problem isn’t the adjective. It’s the noun. Around the world, farming has been wiping out vast habitats, depleting freshwater, polluting oceans, and accelerating global heating, while leaving millions undernourished and unfed. Increasingly, there are signs that the system itself is beginning to flicker. But, as George Monbiot shows us in this brilliant, bracingly original new book, there is another way. Regenesis is an exhilarating journey into a profoundly hopeful, appetising and exciting vision of food: of revolutionary cultivation and cuisine that could nourish us all and restore our world of wonders.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The widow of Walcha : a true story of love, lies and murder in a small country town / Partridge, Emma
“All farmer Mathew Dunbar ever wanted was to find love and have a family of his own. That’s why, just months after meeting Natasha Darcy, the much-loved grazier didn’t hesitate to sign over his multi-million-dollar estate to her. When Mathew died in an apparent suicide soon afterwards, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, Natasha’s estranged husband – who she was once charged with trying to kill – was the first paramedic on the scene. The Widow of Walcha is about one of the most extraordinary criminal trials in Australia’s history and reveals Natasha’s sickening crimes against those she claimed to love, fuelled by her obsession with money.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Ways of being : beyond human intelligence / Bridle, James
“Recent years have seen rapid advances in ‘artificial’ intelligence, which increasingly appears to be something stranger than we ever imagined. At the same time, we are becoming more aware of the other intelligences which have been with us all along, unrecognized. These other beings are the animals, plants, and natural systems that surround us, and are slowly revealing their complexity and knowledge – just as the new technologies we’ve built are threatening to cause their extinction, and ours. What can we learn from these other forms of intelligence and personhood, and how can we change our societies to live more equitably with one another and the non-human world? We have so much to learn, and many worlds to gain.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The things we love : how our passions connect us and make us who we are / Ahuvia, Aaron
“Why is it that we so often feel intense passion for objects? What does this tendency tell us about ourselves and our society? Dr. Aaron Ahuvia presents astonishing discoveries that prove we are far less “rational” than we think when it comes to our possessions and hobbies. In fact, we have passionate relationships with the things we love, and these relationships are driven by influences deep within our culture and our biology. Packed with fascinating case studies, scientific analysis, and takeaways for living in a modern and ever-so-material world, The Things We Love offers a truly original and insightful look into our love for inanimate objects.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

All the living and the dead : a personal investigation into the death trade / Campbell, Hayley
“We are surrounded by death. It is in our news, our nursery rhymes, our true-crime podcasts. Yet from a young age, we are told that death is something to be feared. How are we supposed to know what we’re so afraid of, when we are never given the chance to look? Journalist Hayley Campbell searches for answers from the people who see death every day. Why would someone choose a life of working with the dead? And what does dealing with death every day do to you as a person? A dazzling work of cultural criticism, All the Living and the Dead weaves together reportage with memoir, history, and philosophy, to offer readers a fascinating look into the psychology of Western death.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The nineties / Klosterman, Chuck
“It was long ago, but not as long as it seems: The Berlin Wall fell and the Twin Towers collapsed. In the beginning, almost every name and address was listed in a phone book, and everyone answered their landlines because you didn’t know who it was. By the end, exposing someone’s address was an act of emotional violence, and nobody picked up their new cell phone if they didn’t know who it was. The ’90s brought about a revolution in the human condition we’re still groping to understand. Chuck Klosterman makes a home in all of it, writing a multi-dimensional masterpiece, a work of synthesis so smart and delightful that future historians might well refer to this entire period as Klostermanian.” (Adapted from Amazon UK)

Tree thieves : crime and survival in North America’s woods / Bourgon, Lyndsie
“The tree was poached in a two-part operation. It was felled one night and taken another. Here was a murder mystery in the deep woods: who had taken the cedar, how had they done so, and – most importantly – why? Featuring excellent investigative reporting, fascinating characters, logging history, political analysis and cutting-edge tree science, Tree Thieves takes readers on a thrilling journey into the intrigue, crime and incredible complexity sheltered under the forest canopy. It is a gripping account of the billion-dollar timber black market – and how it intersects with environmentalism, class, and culture. (Adapted from Amazon UK)

Controversial creations: New non-fiction

Do you prefer paperback or hardback? Soft, flexible pages or crisp glossy ones? A book that flops open with ease or a book that tempts you, in its rigidity, to crack the spine? The truth is we can be rather picky about the physical feel of the books we read. But amongst all these variables, at least some things are certain: there will be paper and words and sometimes images. Right? 

Occasionally, something comes along with the audacity to call itself a book despite defying all expectations and instinct. Take, for example, the cheese book. It is made entirely of wrapped slices of processed cheese and it’s in the collection of a number of libraries around the world. The mere fact of its existence riles people up.

Emma Smith explores such controversies and more in Portable Magic, a delightful history of the book-as-object. She also focuses on our relationship with these objects, on the way they have entranced us and changed us. We recommend it for all book-lovers out there! As for the rest of the picks below, not only do they promise to be just as fascinating, we can also confirm that they are assuredly, unequivocally paper-based.

Portable magic : a history of books and their readers / Smith, Emma
“Most of what we say about books is really about the words inside them: the rosy nostalgic glow for childhood reading, the lifetime companionship of a much-loved novel. But books are things as well as words, objects in our lives as well as worlds in our heads. And just as we crack their spines, loosen their leaves and write in their margins, so they disrupt and disorder us in turn. Portable Magic unfurls an exciting and iconoclastic new story of the book in human hands. Gathering together a millennium’s worth of pivotal encounters with volumes big and small, Smith reveals that, as much as their contents, it is books’ physical form that lends them their distinctive and sometimes dangerous magic. Ultimately, our relationship with the written word is more reciprocal – and more turbulent – than we tend to imagine.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The marmalade diaries : the true story of an odd couple / Aitken, Ben
“Recently widowed, Winne, 84, was in need of some companionship. Ben, 34, was looking for a new housemate. As the UK was locked down in 2020, Ben and Winnie’s lives interwove, forming an unlikely friendship, where lessons were learnt (heat the red wine in the oven with the plates; preserve or pickle whatever you can; never throw anything away) and grief, both personal and that of a nation, was explored. Charting both their time together, The Marmalade Diaries is a very human exploration of home, of the passage time, of the growing relationship between an odd couple, told with warmth, wit and candour.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The facemaker : a visionary surgeon’s battle to mend the disfigured soldiers of World War I / Fitzharris, Lindsey
“From the moment the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: mankind’s military technology had wildly surpassed its medical capabilities. In the midst of this brutality, however, there were also those who strove to alleviate suffering. The Facemaker tells the extraordinary story of pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gilles, who dedicated himself to reconstructing the burned and broken faces of the injured soldiers under his care. The result is a vivid account of how medicine can be an art, and of what courage and imagination can accomplish in the presence of relentless horror.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Nomads : the wanderers who shaped our world / Sattin, Anthony
“Humans have been on the move for most of history. Even after the great urban advancement lured people into the great cities of Uruk, Babylon, Rome and Chang’an, most of us continued to live lightly on the move and outside the pages of history. But recent discoveries have revealed another story. Wandering people built the first great stone monuments, they tamed the horse, fashioned the composite bow, fought with the Greeks and hastened the end of the Roman Empire. Reconnecting with our deepest mythology, our unrecorded antiquity and our natural environment, Nomads is the untold history of civilisation, told through its outsiders.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

A natural history of the future : what the laws of biology tell us about the destiny of the human species / Dunn, Rob
“Biologist Rob Dunn grew up listening to stories of the Mississippi River, how it flooded his grandfather’s town, leaving behind a muddy wasteland. Years later, Dunn discovered the cause: the Army Corps of Engineers had tried to straighten the river to allow for the easy passage of boats. But as Dunn argues in A Natural History of the Future, nature has its own set of rules, and no amount of human tampering can rewrite them. He reveals the surprising complexities of the natural world and offers plenty of simple lessons in how we can make the lifestyle changes necessary to ensure our own species’ survival. At once hopeful and practical, this book offers a vision of our future in which humans and the natural world coexist symbiotically.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The family Roe : an American story / Prager, Joshua
“Despite her famous pseudonym, “Jane Roe,” no one knows the truth about Norma McCorvey, whose unwanted pregnancy in 1969 opened a great fracture in American life. Drawing on a decade of research, Prager reveals the woman behind the pseudonym, writing in novelistic detail of her unknown life from her time as a sex worker in Dallas, to her private thoughts on family and abortion, to her dealings with feminist and Christian leaders, to the three daughters she placed for adoption. An epic work spanning fifty years of American history, The Family Roe is a masterpiece of reporting on the Supreme Court’s most divisive case: Roe v Wade.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The science of murder : the forensics of Agatha Christie / Valentine, Carla
“A mortician and forensic expert explores the real-life cases that inspired Agatha Christie, showing how the great mystery writer might have kept current with the latest advancements in forensic science.” (Catalogue)

Fledgling / Bourne-Taylor, Hannah
“When lifelong bird-lover Hannah Bourne-Taylor moved with her husband to Ghana seven years ago she couldn’t have anticipated how her life would be forever changed. Fledgling is a portrayal of adaptability, resilience and self-discovery in the face of isolation and change, fuelled by the quiet power of nature and the unexpected bonds with animals she encounters. Bourne-Taylor encourages us to reconsider the conventional relationships people have with animals through her inspiring glimpse of what is possible when we allow ourselves to connect to the natural world. She shows that even the tiniest of birds can teach us what is important in life and how to embrace every day.” (Adapted from Catalogue)